Alums, Current Blue Demons Say Arena Changes Recruiting Landscape

Analysis by Steve Wojcik

PostedMonday, June 10, 2013

After more than 33 years of playing home basketball games outside city limits, the DePaul men's basketball team is on its way to a new home in the city of Chicago.

In May, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced plans for a new multipurpose event center that will host games for both DePaul men’s and women’s basketball teams beginning in the 2016-2017 season.

The plan had been in the works for quite some time according to DePaul Athletic Director Jean Lenti Ponsetto, who says the school has been in a “complete whirlwind” since May 15, 2012, when DePaul’s strategic plan, Vision 2018, was unveiled.

“This is obviously a very historic and prideful day for all of us at DePaul,” Ponsetto said in a May 16 press conference at McGrath-Phillips Arena. “I started at DePaul as a student-athlete back in 1974 and I feel like we’ve been talking about having an arena on campus or somewhere in Chicago ever since that time.”

The Blue Demon men, who have made their home at suburban Allstate Arena (formerly Rosemont Horizon) since 1980, are expected to play up to 17 games per season at the new event center, while the Blue Demon women, who’ve played home games at Lincoln Park’s McGrath Arena since 2000, may play as many as 10 games per season at the new location.

There were several reasons the school was looking to relocate to somewhere closer to their Lincoln Park and South Loop campuses, including a location that would be easily accessible to the students and help attract top Chicago high school recruits.

Looking Forward ... and Back
Before Allstate Arena, there was Alumni Hall, owned and operated by DePaul and located on-campus and home to the DePaul men's basketball team from 1954 until 1980 when it moved to the Horizon. The school continued to schedule some games at the Hall, which is why star players such as Bobby Simmons and Rod Strickland are familiar with the building.

Simmons, who spoke with reporters after the DePaul press conference, sees the new arena as something that will positively impact attendance and recruiting so the team can be in a position to get "Chicago talent to stay home."

"With the change, I think the commute will be a whole lot easier from having access on the train, cabs ... you're dead center, central location to all the freeways and I think that means a lot," Simmons said. "Facility change is always a good thing because not only that, everyone wants to be first to do something."

Strickland, who played for DePaul from 1985-1988 and is now an assistant coach at the University of Kentucky agreed with Simmons' assessment and thinks the move will pay huge dividends.

"DePaul is trying to build the program back up to what it once was and that's a great step," Strickland said, responding to specific questions posed through the Kentucky athletic department. "It's great for recruiting. The [Rosemont] Horizon was a great facility for us back in the day, but it's time for a change and I think it's going to be great for DePaul and great for the city."

Strickland wouldn't blame a lack of attendance for a lack of production on the court, but when talking about his mentality when he was on the court, he believed a team can benefit from a large, raucous crowd.

"I went to DePaul because I wanted to play on national TV and I wanted to play in front of a lot of people," Strickland said. "I loved the crowds. I loved seeing people in the stands and get that adrenaline boost, I think we all did. We fed off the crowd and they did help us win games."

Map it out. Rosemont’s Allstate Arena, located on Mannheim Road, is more than 15 miles from DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus and more than 18 miles from its downtown campus on East Jackson. This means a student looking to commute from either campus to a DePaul men’s basketball home game is looking at at least 45 minutes of travel time if they’re using the CTA. This was the major issue that necessitated plans for a new arena closer to Chicago.

“In addition to obviously wanting to have a first class venue for our student athletes to play in both men’s and women’s basketball, one of the many issues that we’ve dealt with over the years and several of our last strategic plans was building affinity in school pride and certainly one of the ways that most institutions do that is through their athletics program and at DePaul it’s through our basketball programs,” Ponsetto said. “It was becoming more and more difficult for our students to make their way to the Allstate Arena and it was continuously and has been a point of concern for us because our future season ticket holders are our students who are currently enrolled.”

That being said, the school did have options and considered each and every one of them before they determined the McCormick Place location was best. Early this year, people were clamoring for an on-campus facility to be built in Lincoln Park, an idea that Ponsetto says was discussed but, ultimately, not realistic.

“The work of our feasibility study was very clear, that as we looked at our property on campus, our campus proper here in Lincoln Park, we did not have the footprint large enough to be able to construct a facility of the size that we felt that we needed” Ponsetto said. “We, ideally, wanted to construct a facility that was 10 thousand. We looked at scaling down to a facility that was in the 7,500 to 8,000 range; there wasn’t a piece of property on our campus here in Lincoln Park that would’ve accommodated that.”

Lincoln Park wasn’t the only destination DePaul considered. In March, they turned down a 10-year, rent-free offer from the United Center. According to a Chicago Tribune article, the stadium was offering Blackhawks staff guidance, assistance with ticket sales and advertising, as well as all ticket revenue. UC co-owner and owner of the Blackhawks, Rocky Wirtz, told the Tribune they “threw the kitchen sink at them.”

“We will make money with our suites and parking and concessions, but we thought we’d like to have DePaul as a tenant,” Wirtz said. “We thought it would be good for the city. We thought it would be exciting. And quite frankly, we thought it would help them with their recruiting.”

From the outside, this was a very generous offer and many were surprised DePaul did not accept. According to Ponsetto, while the school appreciated Wirtz’s efforts, the United Center wasn’t quite what they were looking for.

“They [Jerry Reinsdorf and Rocky Wirtz] certainly worked hard to make us a very gracious offer. At the end of the day, it really came down to what’s been a high priority for us all along – to be primary when it came to dates,” Ponsetto said.

With 41 home games for the Bulls, 41 home games for the Blackhawks, in addition to practices and a wide variety of concerts and events, the school felt they would have to share the stadium far too often which would likely conflict with the Blue Demons or their opponents’ ability to hold practices.

“One of the things that will be afforded to us at the event center is we will have the opportunity to practice a number of times,” Ponsetto said. “The offer of free rent was very generous, but it was not free operating expenses. The expenses were significant. Candidly, our deal at the Allstate Arena was financially more favorable. [The United Center] just didn’t meet our needs.”

From coaches, to students, to former players, the announcement of the new basketball arena was met with excitement across the board from all those looking forward to the opportunity to support the team in a more convenient fashion.

But nobody was happier than men's basketball coach Oliver Purnell, who said he was "dreaming about this date since the date I stepped on this campus." 

"We talked about it some then ... just really a dream that we will now be playing in a great home court environment and will be back in the city of Chicago," he said. "It's clearly our goal here at DePaul to have a top notch men's basketball program. I really believe this is the next best step."

Purnell cites having a "first class, top notch arena" and the realignment of the Big East as major developments that will surely impact future recruiting classes, an area where the Blue Demons have struggled, particularly with local high school stars in recent years.

Jabari Parker, Anthony Davis, Wayne Blackshear. The list of highly-ranked Chicago-area basketball products who chose to leave the city and the state to play college ball has grown year after year, leaving many to wonder why they’re completely overlooking DePaul, a school playing in a power conference. Purnell said that a lot of this has to do with the team playing in the suburbs, outside of the Chicago metropolitan area.

Purnell referenced conversations he’s had with prospects, coaches and friends of prospects and media members throughout the country where they all cite one of the major drawbacks of committing to DePaul is that the team doesn’t play in Chicago.

“I can tell you already in talking about the possibility of building a place and the real possibility and likelihood has already helped us in recruiting and in recruiting Chicago-area players,” Purnell said.

Jerry Meyer, who has been covering college basketball and recruiting for the last 10 years, currently with 247Sports.com, spoke briefly about the this year’s recruiting class which includes guards Billy Garrett and R.J. Currington and cited the difficulty a team has in the recruiting department when they’re not winning. He also mentioned the less than adequate facilities that don’t do them any favors.

“It is really difficult to quantify the effect of new facilities or a new arena on recruiting,” Meyer said. “There is no doubt, however, that substandard facilities hurt a team’s chances in recruiting. Improving facilities is more of just keeping up with the Joneses, so to speak. It is necessary to stay on par.”

It may be difficult to quantify on a case-by-case basis, as Meyer alluded to, but as Coach Purnell stated, the location a team plays its home games can make a big difference to someone who is undecided on where they’ll play college ball.

“It will be one of the major selling points, without question,” Purnell said. “I can tell you that facilities are huge in terms of a primary buying motive for a prospect and his family or influencers.”

Everyone who has addressed the topic seems sure that recruiting will be positively impacted, and why wouldn't it be? Chicago is one of the greatest basketball cities in the country, a place where many high school stars would love to play...the same can't be said for Rosemont, Illinois. Having the opportunity to play in a city that has been home to so many greats is a major selling point.

The expectation is that attendance will also see a dramatic increase with the team playing home games in the city of Chicago. According to Allstate Arena ticket records obtained by Crains Chicago Business, average attendance at Blue Demons home games over the past three years has been about 2,900 each game, a remarkable number considering the arena has the capacity to seat more than 18,000.

The number the school reports, which is based on tickets sold and not the number of people walking through the gate, is close to 8,000 per home game. The discrepancy can be explained by blocks of tickets the school buys to provide to students to attend games for free, many of which go unused.

Based on the number the school reports, a report by HVS, a New York hospitality consulting firm, the new arena is projected to have an average attendance of 9,500 per home game. Director of Athletics Communications Greg Greenwell also expects the number to increase.

"Attendance is expected to increase with the combination of an improved team and the new facility," Greenwell said. "The facility will have easy access for students and the Chicago community with a planned CTA Green Line station just two blocks away scheduled to open in 2014. The facility is part of a larger project the city is undertaking that will also include hotels and restaurants in the neighborhood for fans to have options for pregame and postgame."

Beyond Men's Basketball
The majority of the attention around the new events center has been directed to DePaul's men's basketball team, but they are not the only ones that will benefit from the 10,000 seat construction. According to a press release posted to the official website of DePaul Athletics, the building will host a fair amount of DePaul women's games, as was previously alluded to, as well as other high-profile functions for the school and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.

In spite of the non-DePaul related function the new events center may host, the facility is expected to have a very "definitive DePaul feel to it on both the exterior and the interior," according to the university's Director of Athletics Communications, Greg Greenwell.

"The set up gives DePaul the best scenario for not only men's and women's basketball, but also other University events such as commencement, convocation, concerts, etc.," Greenwell said. "The women's team will still play some of their games in Lincoln Park. The new facility will also free up a very busy practice schedule at McGrath-Phillips Arena in the winter with many programs using the facility for indoor practice in addition to men's and women's basketball."

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